Study examines drought, fire, and archeological impacts in Jemez Mountains

May 14, 2024

Drought and fire impacts on archeology in the Jemez Mountains

A recent publication titled “Drought, Fire, and Archeology in the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico” explores how drought and forest fires affect archeological sites, historic structures, and cultural landscapes in the Jemez Mountains.

As reported on the National Park Service website, the study highlights the results of over 40 years of research at Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The research draws on insights from the ArcBurn project, an interdisciplinary effort to quantify archeological fire effects and manage fuels and fire environments.

The Jemez Mountains are characterized by a rich cultural landscape with archeological resources and traditional cultural places.

These resources, considered irreplaceable and non-renewable, are increasingly vulnerable to wildland fire due to changing climate conditions and historical forest management practices.

The study aims to understand fire effects on these resources to develop proactive management strategies to mitigate threats.

Cultural resources and fire management

The Jemez Mountains have experienced substantial climate changes, resulting in severe fires that threaten cultural resources.

Historically, low severity surface fires were common in mid-elevation Ponderosa pine forests, while higher elevation mixed conifer forests experienced more severe fires less frequently.

However, 20th-century fire suppression policies and intense livestock grazing led to an accumulation of fuels, increasing the severity of fires.

The study indicates that prolonged warming caused by climate change amplifies the effects of drought on fire intensity and size.

Data from weather stations show a steady warming trend and variable precipitation cycles.

These trends increase landscape flammability and the potential for high-severity fires, impacting archeological sites and artifacts.

Fire effects on archeological sites

The study documents both direct and indirect fire effects on archeological resources.

Direct effects include fracturing and discoloration of masonry, pottery, and stone artifacts.

For example, obsidian artifacts can shatter or bubble when exposed to high temperatures, while fire fracture produces non-cultural objects that mimic obsidian artifacts, complicating analyses.

Indirect effects, such as erosion and flooding, can occur long after a fire.

Post-fire erosion rates are high, causing displacement and damage to architectural sites and artifacts.

The study highlights that recent fires have exposed archeological sites to unprecedented fire severity, leading to significant impacts on the material record.

The ArcBurn project

The ArcBurn project, initiated in response to the extreme fire effects observed in the Jemez Mountains, aims to identify fire environments associated with archeological impacts.

The project includes controlled combustion experiments to simulate different fire environments and their effects on artifacts.

Results indicate that fire effects vary by artifact type and fire environment, with substantial alterations observed in ceramics, chert, masonry, and obsidian artifacts.

The study emphasizes the need for continued research to understand cumulative fire effects on archeological resources and to develop effective preservation strategies.

Recommendations include forest thinning to reduce fuel loads, designing treatments to avoid damaging fire environments, and prioritizing protection of sensitive artifacts.

FSJA comment

The publication “Drought, Fire, and Archeology in the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico” underscores the critical relationship between climate change, forest management, and the preservation of cultural resources.

As fire intensity and frequency increase due to prolonged warming and historical land management practices, archeological sites in the Jemez Mountains face heightened risks.

The ArcBurn project’s interdisciplinary approach provides valuable insights into mitigating these threats through targeted fuels treatments and preservation strategies.

Effective management of cultural resources in fire-prone landscapes requires collaboration between archeologists, fire managers, and researchers.

The study highlights the importance of designing fuel treatments that consider the specific sensitivities of archeological artifacts and sites.

By integrating these considerations into broader forest management practices, it is possible to protect both cultural and natural resources from the impacts of climate change and severe fires.

As research continues, it will be essential to develop operational tools and guidelines that aid in the proactive preservation of archeological sites.

These efforts can help ensure that the rich cultural heritage of the Jemez Mountains is safeguarded for future generations.

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